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Song of Solomon 1

Introduction:

The purpose of this poem is to celebrate the divine gift of erotic love by focusing on the romance between two characters:  the Shulamite and the Beloved.  Commentators often refer to the woman as “the Shulamite” because she is called this in 6:13.  Her home was probably the town of Shunem in northern Palestine.  Robert Gordis says this town was famous for having beautiful women (68).  The Beloved is the man; I use this term to refer to him because this is the term that the NKJ translation uses.

As for exactly who these two were, that is not clear to me.  What obscures their identities is the poetic nature of the work, which presents a variety of interpretive challenges in its frequent use of metaphor and its non-linear structure.  For instance, the Shulamite is often referred to as a shepherdess and a vinedresser, but she is also called a prince’s daughter in 7:1.  The Beloved seems sometimes to be King Solomon himself, but then in 8:11-12, the Beloved appears to be addressing Solomon as though he were someone else.  A similar difficulty is the fact that it is not always clear who the speaker is.  For instance, the NKJ translation has The Daughters of Jerusalem say, “We will run after you” in 1:4, but Gordis has the Shulamite girl say, “let us hasten” in the same place.  The non-linear structure adds to the difficulty of determining the identities of the lovers by breaking up the  narrative history of their romance. [1] The Song of Solomon is a collection of scenes and dialogues describing the love between the Shulamite girl and the Beloved.  It must assume an underlying storyline from which these scenes are taken, but the details of that storyline are difficult to sort out because some of the scenes may be fantasies or dreams[2] of the lovers (as opposed to actual events in the lovers’ history).  Nevertheless, I will present my best attempt to reconstruct the linear narrative as a short prose summary at the end of this Introduction.

Having said all that, I will be assuming in these notes that the Beloved is King Solomon and that the Shulamite is a commoner, a shepherdess and vinedresser with whom Solomon falls in love.  My main reason for believing that Solomon is the Beloved is the description of his marriage in 3:6-11.  Why should a description of Solomon’s marriage appear in the midst of this love poem unless the king himself were the Beloved?  Those who do not believe Solomon is the Beloved have difficulty explaining the purpose of this section.  Ronald Murphy, for example, says that it has no connection to the verses preceding it or following it, concluding that “3:6-11 seems to be a somewhat foreign body within the Song” (151-152).  However, when one assumes that Solomon is the Beloved, this section fits very smoothly with its surrounding verses.  See notes on 3:6-11.  Murphy and others believe that titles like “King” and “Shepard” are lover’s fancies or poetic conventions.  Perhaps they are right, but the titles might just as easily describe literal reality.  In fact, the title of “vinedresser” strikes me as a literal description of the Shulamite.  Note that the descriptions of her as a vinedresser include the detail about her burnt skin (1:6).  Such an unflattering feature sticks out in a poem so occupied with sumptuous, hyperbolic descriptions of beauty and idyllic sensuality; thus, that particular feature has the tone of realism.

The authorship of the poem is unclear to many scholars as well.  Since the opening line attributes the poem to Solomon, I am content to assume that he is the author.  It seems that the primary objection to believing Solomon wrote the poem is the fact that it contains some foreign loan words (Persian and Aramaic).  These loan words, so the theory goes, would not have been in use among Hebrews living in Solomon’s time, but this seems like a weak argument to me.  Persia and Aram existed when Solomon was king, and Solomon’s economic connections extended as far as Africa and India.[3] Is this not enough to explain the presence of foreign loan words in a poem that intentionally seeks out such terminology to achieve the effect of exoticism?  In fact, the presence of these terms could be seen as a support for Solomon’s authorship.  He was a writer of songs (1 Kings 4:32) and renowned as the most learned man of his day, always eager for knowledge.  Is it so very strange, then, to believe that he would know and make use of some Persian and Aramaic terminology?

There is a long-standing tradition of interpreting this poem as an allegory of God’s love for his people.  In as much as God’s ideal relationship with humanity is analogous to the love of a husband for his wife,[4] I believe such an interpretation is easily applicable to the poem, even if its overt purpose is to describe the love between the Shulamite and the Beloved.  See note on 7:10 in particular.

Summary of the Love Story of the Shulamite and the Beloved…

Once there was a beautiful young girl who lived with her mother and brothers in Shunem, a town in northern Palestine.  Her brothers often bullied her and made her work for them by tending their sheep and vineyards, but one day she met a handsome shepherd as she was in the fields minding the flocks.  (This shepherd was none other than King Solomon in disguise.  He had learned of her from afar and wished to meet with her without all his royal pomp.)  She fell in love with this shepherd, and he with her.  Then, on a certain spring night, he came to her house and invited her to come out with him that they might share the joys of love together.  However, she hesitated to leave because of what her brothers might say; she only flirted coyly with him, and he left without ever having entered the house.  Later that night, she could not sleep.  She grew so upset about not accepting her Beloved’s invitation that she eventually got up to search for him in the town.  While out searching, she asked the night watchmen if they had seen him, but they mistook her for a prostitute and beat her.  Nevertheless, she eventually found her Beloved and swore never to let him go again.  She took him back to her mother’s house and openly declared her love for him to her brothers.  They tried to argue against her, but she put them off.  Then, the shepherd revealed his true identity and escorted the Shulamite to Jerusalem in a royal litter with an armed escort.  In Jerusalem they were married and enjoyed each other for the rest of their days, often reminiscing about the times when they first fell in love.

Chapter 1

v. 4: “The Daughters of Jerusalem” may or may not be the speakers here (see Introduction), but they certainly do exist in the song.[5] The NKJ translation seems to treat them as a kind of chorus (as in a Greek play) that have a collective personality which is positive and helpful.[6]

v. 6: The Shulamite girl with whom Solomon is in love seems to have been a kind of Cinderella.  Instead of cruel stepsisters, the Shulamite had bullying brothers who were angry with her and made her keep their vineyards without giving her time to look after her own interests.[7] Also, her constant hard work gave her a rough appearance.  Just as Cinderella was dressed in rags and covered in ashes, so this girl has been tanned by her long exposure to the sun.  This darkness is not a mark of beauty.  Notice that she seems a little insecure about it, saying things like “I am dark but[8] lovely” (v.5) and “Do not look upon me, because I am dark.”

v. 7: We are not given much in the way of a detailed narrative here, but I imagine this conversation (7-10) taking place under the following circumstances.  While passing through the Shulamite’s native land, Solomon learns of her and is interested in courting her.  Disguising himself as a shepherd, the king approaches this girl among her flocks and wins her heart.  Then, when she asks where his flocks are (so she will not waste time searching fruitlessly for them in her attempt to rendezvous with him later), he directs her…

a) to his royal pavilions, which he has set up out of sight.  Perhaps they are near where the shepherds’ tents are typically set, or perhaps “beside the shepherds’ tents” is an example of litotes and refers to his royal pavilions.

Or

b) to a place she knows in the countryside where they can have a romantic tryst.[9] That, I assume, is her purpose in asking where he rests his flocks at noon.  If they are resting, then he need not watch them so closely and can attend to her.

v. 13: The whole poem is filled with vivid, exotic, and sensuous imagery.  Some of it (this verse for instance) is overtly erotic, and I suspect that there are many more erotic images in it than are obvious to me.  See note on 7:2.


[1] Nevertheless, the poem does have short narrative elements which are linear. See, for instance, 3:1-4.

[2] Gordis, for instance, entitles 3:1-5 as “The Dream of the Lost Lover,” (55) but Ronald E. Murphy, addressing the same passage, writes, “whether this is a dream or not remains open” (146).

[3] Gordis notes that the words for “apes” and “peacocks” in I Kings 10:22 are derived from Sanskrit, which suggests that “India was the point of origin of these luxuries” (22).

[4] See notes on Genesis 2:18.

[5] See 2:7, 3:5, and 5:8.

[6] See 1:11 and 5:8-6:1.

[7] Thus, she says, “But my own vineyard I have not kept.”  The vineyard is used as a metaphor for the girl’s body throughout the poem, and it may be so here.  If so, the quotation may be paraphrased as “I have not been able to care for my body as I would have liked,” which could allude to things like her dark, sunburned skin.

[8] Emphasis mine.

[9] Vs. 16 and 17 describe a moment of intimacy that takes place outdoors.

10 Responses to “Song of Solomon 1”

  1. […] determining the identities of the lovers by breaking up the  narrative history of their romance. [1] The Song of Solomon is a collection of scenes and dialogues describing the love between the […]

  2. […] may or may not be the speakers here (see Introduction), but they certainly do exist in the song.[5] The NKJ translation seems to treat them as a kind of chorus (as in a Greek play) that have a […]

  3. […] determining the identities of the lovers by breaking up the  narrative history of their romance. [1] The Song of Solomon is a collection of scenes and dialogues describing the love between the […]

  4. […] may or may not be the speakers here (see Introduction), but they certainly do exist in the song.[5] The NKJ translation seems to treat them as a kind of chorus (as in a Greek play) that have a […]

  5. […] I am inclined to believe Barnes’s interpretation.  I do not believe that this girl is a princess of Egypt[1] or any other realm.  True, she is called a prince’s daughter in 7:2, so one could justifiably make the argument that she is literally a princess, but I suspect that the appellation “prince’s daughter” is a poetic flourish, the same type of flourish that Murphy sees in the references to Solomon.  Why do I believe that the descriptions of her as a common shepherdess and vineyard dresser are factual while the one that describes her as a princess is figurative?  My main reason for believing this is that the descriptions of her as a commoner include the detail about her burnt skin (1:6).  Such an unflattering feature sticks out in a poem so occupied with sumptuous descriptions of beauty and idyllic sensuality; thus, that particular feature has the tone of realism.  The only other reason one might believe that the girl is an actual princess is derived from the fact that she rides in a royal litter, but this is clearly Solomon’s, not hers, so it should not be taken as a sign of her royal status.  As for why I interpret the references to Solomon as literal, see my notes in the Introduction. […]

  6. […] I am inclined to believe Barnes’s interpretation.  I do not believe that this girl is a princess of Egypt[1] or any other realm.  True, she is called a prince’s daughter in 7:2, so one could justifiably make the argument that she is literally a princess, but I suspect that the appellation “prince’s daughter” is a poetic flourish, the same type of flourish that Murphy sees in the references to Solomon.  Why do I believe that the descriptions of her as a common shepherdess and vineyard dresser are factual while the one that describes her as a princess is figurative?  My main reason for believing this is that the descriptions of her as a commoner include the detail about her burnt skin (1:6).  Such an unflattering feature sticks out in a poem so occupied with sumptuous descriptions of beauty and idyllic sensuality; thus, that particular feature has the tone of realism.  The only other reason one might believe that the girl is an actual princess is derived from the fact that she rides in a royal litter, but this is clearly Solomon’s, not hers, so it should not be taken as a sign of her royal status.  As for why I interpret the references to Solomon as literal, see my notes in the Introduction. […]

  7. […] [2] See note on 1:4. […]

  8. […] [2] See note on 1:4. […]

  9. […] [3] See Introduction. […]

  10. […] [3] See Introduction. […]

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